Opinion

Beyond just ethnicity: further cuts on Wigneswaran’s historiography

Summary

Their nationalism, as with their reformism, was limited by their economic interests. “They were men acting in the interests of their classes,” wrote N. Shanmugaratnam: “the native landed proprietors, the native owners of graphite mines, and the comprador bourgeoisie.”

That, however, is the tip of the iceberg. Racism and racialism are not products of Western civilisation and they are not its preserve either. But race as is understood today was certainly the product of two Western trends: imperialism and orientalism.

The term itself dates, in Europe, from the 16th century onwards: the era of Hobbes, Locke, and later, Montesquieu, the likes of whom actively sought to prove that democracy, the rights of the individual, and sovereignty did not apply to dark-skinned and “inferior” people. The work of William Jones, who tried to show the link between Sanskrit and European languages, must be cited here, as must that of Max Müller, who claimed superiority for Indo-Aryan culture and provided the ideological rung for the Nazi ladder.

The end result of it all was, as Vinod Moonesinghe correctly noted many years ago in this paper, that the British, subsequent to their occupation of this country, played up the divide-and-rule game by trying to prove that the Sinhalese (“Aryans”) belonged to a superior race and Tamils (Dravidians) were of a lesser order: a tactic which boomeranged spectacularly when Sinhala elites used this logic against the British themselves.

I mentioned this as the tip of the iceberg. Why? Because when we talk about race so crudely and simplistically, we not only forget that they meant completely different things to people from centuries ago, we also lay aside the fact that any talk of race must necessarily be at the expense of class, undoubtedly the most pervasive social division today.

Thus those opposed to Sinhala nationalism claim that there has always been systematic discrimination by Sinhala people, of all backgrounds, against the Tamil community, failing to distinguish between the lower and the higher ends of the social hierarchy. When it is made clear that under British rule the two most discriminated communities were Indian plantation workers (Tamil) and Kandyan peasants (Sinhala), academics argue that the Kandyan peasant was not as marginalised as the evidence points out, simply by virtue of the fact that he had elite backing. Thus Mick Moore writes of a “Sinhalese myth of the plantation impact”, while Vijaya Samaraweera writes of “nationalist political leaders.” What is forgotten here is that class can often, if not more often than not, override ethnicity.

One of the many things I agree with Marx is his view that agrarian communities can be collectively considered as a class in itself (rather than a class for itself, since in the beginning it lacked political representation). This is certainly applicable to the Sinhala peasant, which often makes me wonder why it is that we don’t read Marx more.

The truth was that class, and caste, determined the fortunes of political representatives and elites from that era. The class limitations of the colonial bourgeoisie, despite their supposed liberalism and support for the peasantry, can be seen in the fact that they vetoed proposals for universal franchise and, later, free education: proposals which, if implemented in full, would have had their biggest impact on the peasantry.

Their nationalism, as with their reformism, was limited by their economic interests. “They were men acting in the interests of their classes,” wrote N. Shanmugaratnam: “the native landed proprietors, the native owners of graphite mines, and the comprador bourgeoisie.”
There was nothing to suggest, as Moore does, that the conflict was solely between colonial officials and capitalist elites. “The interests of the Ceylonese planters,” observed James Peiris in 1908, “are identical with those of the European planters.” In such a situation, it is difficult to imagine that Sinhala peasants were behind Sinhala elites, and not behind the more cosmopolitan Left, which, after all, agitated for reforms that benefited them: not just the franchise and free education, but also the Paddy Lands Act.

So the Sinhala peasantry, along with the Tamil peasantry, ought to be considered apart from the Sinhala bourgeoisie.  Where Sinhala and Tamil nationalists, who are overwhelmingly petty bourgeois and thus allied, with or without their knowledge, with a class that has a definite stake in dividing communities to maintain its hold, have gone wrong is their belief that all these communities and formations can be considered as one. Sinhala peasants are accordingly put into the same basket as Sinhala elites: a classic error.

All I can point at as evidence for how political history rebels against this kind of reasoning is the fact that, in the 1982 presidential election, the people of Jaffna gave their preference to the SLFP candidate over the UNP candidate, beating J. R. Jayewardene to third place.

The reason was economics: the Jaffna farmer had benefited under Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s agrarian policies. Had the Jaffna farmer considered himself a descendant of the original inhabitants of the country, he would not have given his vote to a “Sinhala Buddhist” party so openly. Now the thing with history is that it has a habit of repeating itself, as the ex-Chief Minister and MP ought to be aware: in the recent general election, the Jaffna people again gave a sizable chunk of their votes to the SLFP, over the SJB.

Part 1 of this essay can be found here: 

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